Acknowledging Copyright’s Complexity
Core Copyright’s mission is to simplify U.S. copyright law and policy in a reliable, unbiased, and knowledgeable way so that anyone who is affected by the law can understand what it means. While we take our mission seriously, we realize how difficult it will be to fulfill it consistently because of how complicated copyright law is.
I am aware there exists a recurring (and we think, reasonable) argument among some copyright scholars that contends one big reason copyright law has become so problematic is because it never was intended to be widely applicable to citizens. Instead, the argument continues, copyright was developed to govern commercial transactions that involve creative and fixed works; historically, it never (and never was supposed to) govern how individuals relate with or use those same creative and fixed works.
I generally attribute this argument to Jessica Litman, whom I have heard make this argument in speeches and in several of her writings, including her book Digital Copyright. More recently, Jacqui Lipton, a law professor at Case Western, captured the essence of Litman’s argument in rhetorical question she posed in a recent post on Madisonian.net:
Is there any point in having a law that potentially affects things we do everyday that no one understands?
While the context of Lipton’s question concerned public misperceptions of copyright law (including what people think copyright should or should not be, as opposed to what it is), the actual question is relevant to what we are trying to do in this space. We realized copyright law has become widely applicable to citizens, and that people generally did not understand it. We launched Core Copyright as an act of public scholarship to help people begin to understand American copyright law, policy, and principles.
Still, we realize how difficult it is to try to present copyright in a way that is universally understandable, requiring nothing but the ability to read. And so I had a good chuckle when I saw a comment that quotes The New York Times (presumably) in late 1976, after Congress passed the legislation that would become the Copyright Act of 1976:
No firecrackers went off when the compromise bill was cleared Oct. 1, the last day of the Congressional session, and no bells are likely to ring when President Ford signs the measure some time this week. The matter is simply too technical, complicated and cumbersome for anyone but specialists to get very excited.
More than 30 years later, that “matter” still is too technical, complicated and cumbersome for most to understand. The difference between now and then, however, is that most citizens have an interest in, or at least are affected by, that “matter.”
I genuinely get excited about copyright law and policy, and have been involved with it since that same time period when Congress was putting final touches on our current copyright legislation. But whether or not this area of the law excites you as an individual, increasingly it does affect you and what you do in your everyday life. Therefore, it behooves you to be informed. We hope Core Copyright can help in this regard.
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